Subtitle: Where the Farm Bill and FSMA Deem Not to Go
When I was a child, nothing captured my imagination more than our country’s space program, and specifically the race to land astronauts on the moon. I read every single article I could find on the subject, and did several school reports and science fair projects on the Apollo mission. I was obsessed, and still remember that hot, late July night in 1969 when we all stayed up late to watch the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the moon for the first time.
It was a heady time. Really big challenges didn’t seem so big back then; they were thought to be achievable. In addition to the space program, advancements were also made – though not without significant effort and some setbacks – on racial equality, women’s rights, clean water and air, preservation of endangered species, and even in terms of improving relations with a country as fearful and closed to Western influence as China.
Perhaps of utmost importance, all of the progress of the sixties and seventies came against a backdrop of extreme tension in the country, and some very major failings. This list is just as easy to construct, to include the Vietnam War, assassinations of some of our most beloved leaders, routine violence in the streets, a rash of airline hijackings (to Cuba, remember?), the Watergate scandal and even, in that same fateful summer as the moon landing, the collapse of the 1969 Cubs (What can I say? I grew up just outside Chicago!).
The point is that some of our society’s greatest achievements came amidst a period of significant, at times crippling strife, disillusionment, death and destruction, the likes of which we have only occasionally experienced since. It was as if, for everything we got right, there were forces at work, aimed at yanking down such progress, and yet we overcame them . . . failure was, in most cases, not even an option to be considered. There was a drive to solve big problems, even though newer ones were sometimes nipping at our heels.
So what happened? Where is the drive to face big challenges today? When did we start believing that failure is not only an option, but a near certainty in many cases?
I have my own theories about when and how this attitude shift occurred, but the point is that somewhere along the line it did. Today our society is struggling and mostly failing to address such conundrums as healthcare, immigration, food insecurity, terrorism, climate change . . . and I could continue this list for another paragraph if necessary. Simply put, the forces of angst, indecision and perhaps even countervailing intent seem to be winning the day, in a way that threatens not only our collective wellbeing, but indeed life on the planet as we know it.
You may be wondering if I’m just pining for the good old days here, or what any of this might have to do with agriculture, but hear me out. It’s not that I’d choose to go back to those turbulent days of my youth, but the way we make decisions now is, well, so entirely indecisive as to raise risk to unprecedented levels. Today, it’s no longer mere confusion that must be overcome so much as resistance to make any positive changes at all. And there is no better place to observe this problem than in considering food and farming systems.
As I have said in other contexts, we live in an age when we understand how to resolve many of the agricultural problems in front of us, though we consistently choose not to implement those solutions in widespread and effective ways. For instance, we know how critical high quality topsoil is to the whole system, with corollary risks/benefits to many other key issues, but we have not made it a national priority to retain or improve this stuff upon which all life depends. We need an Apollo-style mission to preserve and rebuild our topsoil!
We also know many of the benefits that can come to soil and the food produced from it by implementing crop rotations, cover crops, management intensive grazing and the integration of crops and livestock on diversified farms, but such solutions get only minimal attention through the Farm Bill and other policy initiatives. The same is true for strategies aimed at improving the safety of our food supply – we know that risk can be minimized by keeping food supply chains as short as possible, thereby reducing handling, storage and shipping, though this is hardly the priority of the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and will not be the result of its implementation.
In fact, with research funding so minimal for anything that can even remotely be recognized as sustainable or organic agriculture, it’s mightily impressive that we know as much as we do. Multiple long-term studies have shown organic systems to equal conventional agriculture in yields, and even to exceed them in terms of farmer profit. And it is now generally accepted that excessive use of inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, etc…) not only drives up costs for farmers, but adds such significant new riskiness to the mix (e.g. pesticide and antibiotic resistance, degradation of watersheds) as to further undermine any perceived profitability from using them.
Food is the great common denominator in human life, so ordinary that many people never really think about its importance. Most of the significant problems of our day can at least partly be fixed through improving agricultural production and better management of food systems, and yet we continue as a nation to support and encourage practices that make our problems worse. The Farm Bill, now being debated again in Congress, inevitably ends up being a massive support structure for the status quo, despite certain marginal and symbolic provisions to the contrary.
This situation, where we know what to do but refuse to take collective action in that positive direction, is relatively new to the scene and is frankly starting to make the last century look so much better than the new one we recently inherited. What came out of the Great Depression 80 years ago was, among other things, a burst of energy and belief – though perhaps naïve at times – that we could conquer most any problem. What has come out of the more recent Great Recession, starting in 2008, seems to be what can only be understood as a “Great Regression” in terms of our ability to move toward more urgent and promising goals of any kind.
Part of the problem is our attitude toward leadership. It almost doesn’t matter anymore what this or that leader happens to believe, because we’re likely to tear down anyone who even tries aggressively to fix things or to do anything at all that is contrary to the status quo. From top to bottom of the ladder, political and otherwise, we distrust the leaders we ourselves have chosen to such an extent as to shut off any hope of finding and pursuing solutions to the massive problems now before us. It’s like a rapid cycling, throw-the-bums-out syndrome that destroys any chance we might have of succeeding. What does this say about our society? What does this say about the way we view ourselves and the legacy we wish to leave for our children?
I wouldn’t even start an essay like this, let alone finish it, unless I had hope. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for hope these days, though it will need to come to fruition in some very concrete ways in the not-so-distant future to avoid stagnation and more self-defeating behavior within humanity. Such abiding hope can be found on most any farm, if we stand back and learn what nature has to teach before rushing in with an attempt to manipulate and maximize profits from the outcome.
That would require trust . . . something most of us really don’t know how to do anymore. But it’s time to eschew the Great Regression, and open ourselves up to the promise, the hope, the trust of what was already here, long before we went and screwed it all up.